Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Real Risk of Getting Botulism from Home Canned Goods

by M. J. Joachim

Botulism is a rare toxin that affects nerve cells resulting in various health problems including paralysis and death. According to the Center for Disease Control, there are 145 annual cases of botulism reported each year, only 15% of which are food related - that’s an average of 22 cases of food related botulism (worldwide) annually.

Botulism spreads through decomposing animal tissue and plant material, creating a toxin in the food source. The Department of Environmental Conservation states that botulism is a type of food poisoning that affects animals that have ingested another animal or substance affected by the toxin. Therefore, in order to be infected by the toxin, an animal or person must ingest decaying, decomposing food that is infected with botulism, or carries the spores that will grow in the right environment.

Most botulism is found in birds, poultry and fowl, many of which die off well before they ever have a chance of being hunted and making it to the food supply. Many of the birds infected aren’t even considered suitable meat that people would choose to eat.

Fish also can carry botulism. Some species include small mouth bass, rock bass, catfish and sturgeon. If these fish have consumed rotting food in their diets, they are susceptible to carrying and passing on the botulism toxin, which can expose humans to the toxin if they eat contaminated fish.

“Most botulism in cattle occurs in South Africa and South America, where a combination of extensive agriculture, phosphorous deficiency in soil and C botulinum type D in animals creates conditions ideal for the disease." (merckmanuals.com) “This type of botulism is rare in the USA.”

Hot water bath home canning has taken a hit, because of the scare of botulism. Rather than blaming the consumption of botulism on material infected with decaying food affected by the toxin, the USDA has gone to great lengths to blame home canners without providing the necessary back story, that the material being canned was previously infected because it had died and was in the process of decaying, thereby making it unsuitable for consumption in the first place.

On average, there are only 110 cases of botulism reported in the US annually. Only 9 of those cases on average are associated with home canning, most of which are limited to the Alaska Native population where wild fishing and hunting are necessary for survival to the average citizen there.

Apparently some Alaska Natives found a beached whale they decided to harvest and can. The whale was infected with botulism, making it unsuitable for consumption, and several people who ate the home canned whale got sick, because their original food source (the whale) had been contaminated with the botulism toxin while it was decaying on the beach. The people canned a dead, decomposing and decaying whale and got sick from it.

Approximately 25 people are infected by restaurant related incidents, where the source of contamination is detected somewhere along the chain of supply, many cases which end up being traced back to a single food source that has been distributed and marketed to a larger audience.

“Big bale silage and haylage seem to be a particular risk (in the US) and result in botulism problems if fermentation fails to produce a low and stable ph (<4.5).” (merckmanuals.com)

Arizona had a large incident rate of botulism cases among some of its incarcerated citizens in recent years. A few of them got together and created a hidden distillery from the guards. Their grain was apparently contaminated. One can only wonder who and what the source of the grain was, and suspect its contamination should have been expected, considering prisoners had access to the necessary supplies to make a distillery in the first place. Well, a bunch of inmates got sick, the distillery was discovered and ultimately shut down.

Far be it from me to suggest that a bunch of government employees might have been forced to eat home canned goods, prepared by a mother with less than tasty recipes, when they were young. For all we know, they probably fed their food to the dog under the table too.

Using limited information and resources, home canners are being warned of the dangers of growing and passing on the botulism toxin in their hot water bath canned goods, particularly if they can meat and vegetables which don’t meet a certain ph level. It’s not true, but to be on the safest side possible, hot water bath home canners can always add crushed up Vitamin C tablets to their recipes - either that or they can pickle their meat and veggie recipes to bring up the acid levels.

Normal precautions apply. Jars and lids must be sterilized. Food must be of highest quality - no decaying food allowed. If you purchase your food from a certified distributor like the grocery store or any business allowed to distribute food, please remember that they go through a rigorous government process to be allowed to distribute food to the public, thereby making your chances of purchasing contaminated goods that much less likely. Proper sealing is also a must, and it must be ensured. When in doubt, refrigerate, reprocess or dispose of any and all questionable foods.

Can and eat at your own risk. If you do it right, botulism shouldn’t be an issue or concern for you at all.

Thanks for stopping by today,

M. J.

©2014 All Rights Reserved Photo credit: Clostridium botulinum, CDC Public Health Image Library, PD-US

National Public Television - http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/08/02/157777834/canning-history-when-propaganda-encouraged-patriotic-preserves